What you see: One of the 280 pen-and-ink illustrations that Rockwell Kent did for a three-volume 1930 limited edition release of Moby Dick. This particular copy lacks its aluminum slipcase. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
Who was Rockwell Kent? He was one of the best-known American artists of the first half of the 20th century. He was noted for his landscapes and seascapes before making his name as an illustrator. People mixed him up with Norman Rockwell so often that it became a running joke between the two men. Kent died in 1971 at the age of 88.
How did the limited edition printing of Moby Dick come about? Publisher R.R. Donnelley approached Kent in 1926 to do a version of Two Years Before the Mast, and he suggested doing the Melville novel instead. “Kent loved the sea, and the water. He was a master of painting light, and was able to capture that, even in his woodcuts,” says Christine von der Linn, specialist at Swann. “Moby Dick was originally slated to be a one-volume book, and it grew to three.”
Kent’s illustrated Moby Dick came out in 1930, during the Great Depression. How well did it sell? “It was so popular, the limited edition of 1,000 sold out,” she says. “It launched Kent’s name, and caused a revival of interest in Moby Dick. It was so popular that a one-volume trade edition was put out.”
This copy lacks its aluminum slipcase. Does that affect its value? Yes. It’d be worth one-third to one-half more if it came with the slipcase, von der Linn says, noting that the Kent limited edition was jokingly referred to as ‘Moby Dick in a can.’
That image of the whale diving deep into the ocean with the boat in its mouth looks cinematic. Was Kent influenced by the movies at all? “He was certainly aware of the current culture and would have seen movies, but he was not thinking in a cinematic way,” she says. “He loved black and white, and he tried to distill the most dramatic details out of a scene. He was always thinking about reaching the reader in the most visually direct way possible.”
But that drawing, tho. “That image is phenomenal. You can’t look at that and not get chills,” she says. “You understand everything about the novel. It’s incredible.”
What else makes Kent’s version of Moby Dick so spectacular? “It blows you away with the overall beauty of it,” she says. “As you flip through the pages, you feel it come to life through Kent’s illustrations. That’s the mark of a successful illustrated book–if you can make the words leap off the page and spring to life.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.